Bringing Culture Alive by Offering Financial Education to Refugees

Jill M. Norvilitis (Buffalo State College)


Please note: Instructors are welcome to use or adapt these teaching ideas for their own classes, provided the use is noncommercial and appropriate credit is given.


To: (1) understand the dimensions along which cultures vary and the implications of these variations for refugee families; (2) learn about ethnocentrism, stereotyping, and prejudice toward people from other cultures; and (3) help a refugee family adjust to a new culture.


In this action teaching project, students in a cultural psychology course engage in a 20-hour field experience that helps them understand the day-to-day issues that refugees face, learn about a different culture, and see how cultural variations play out in a real-world context. In collaboration with a resettlement agency, student groups are matched with local refugee families in need of financial education. Over the course of a semester, students meet with their assigned family six or seven times to discuss topics ranging from monetary denominations to setting up a bank account, and after each meeting, students write a journal entry that describes the session and relates it to the course content. This hands-on experience helps bring the course material alive, provides students with cross-cultural contact, and in the process, assists refugee families.


Psychology of Culture is a cross-cultural course that explores the psychological dimensions along which culture varies and the impact of ethnocentrism on how we view others. When I first taught the course, I used to require students to interview people from other cultures and submit a paper reporting the results. More recently, however, I developed an action teaching approach that provides students with a richer learning opportunity than a single interview can offer. In the action teaching project, students engage in a 20-hour service-learning experience that allows them to understand the day-to-day issues that refugees face, learn about a different culture, and see how cultural variations play out in a real-world context.

Every year about 1,000 refugees arrive in our local community, and for many, the U.S. economic system is bewildering. Although some refugees arrive from countries that have highly developed financial systems, others come from refugee camps or countries where bartering or identification cards are more common than currency. Indeed, for some families, ten years may have passed since they last used money. These families may not know the difference between a quarter and a nickel or between dubious financial arrangements (e.g., payday loans, rent-to-own) and potentially helpful ones (e.g., no-fee savings and checking accounts for refugees). Local resettlement agencies are often so busy providing basic services such as housing, transportation, food, and job training that refugees are left to learn by trial and error.

Meeting with a family

Meeting with a family

To address this need, students in Psychology of Culture meet with families six or seven times to discuss topics ranging from monetary denominations to setting up a bank account. This type of mentoring allows families to learn more about money than simply participating in, for example, a class session. Further, students improve their own financial literacy by teaching these topics to the families. After each meeting, students write a journal entry in which they describe the session and relate their experience to the course content. For example, students might write about the difficulties of intercultural communication during the section of the course that covers language barriers. After the last meeting, students write a paper about their family and discuss the process, the results, and what they learned from it.

This service-learning project on financial education was developed in collaboration with a local resettlement agency. The agency identified specific financial topics that were important to cover, and a curriculum was designed for students to administer. All necessary supplies, such as play money and budgeting tools, were provided to students. Students were assigned in teams of three to families that ranged from single individuals to families with multiple children. Most visits occurred in the family's home, although some teams found it more convenient to meet in the local library.

Here is an overview of the meetings:

Session 1: Students begin by using the curriculum to evaluate the families' financial literacy. Do family members understand the denominations of money? Do they have a bank account?

Session 2: This session is optional depending on previous knowledge. If necessary, students cover denominations using play money (e.g., demonstrating how many coins equal a dollar).

Session 3: Students illustrate the idea of budgeting by determining the amount of monthly income their family has available and allocating play money for rent, food, utilities, and other expenses. Students complete two different budgets with their family: one that includes government assistance and one for after the assistance ends.

Session 4: Students discuss certain money traps (e.g., rent-to-own, check cashing stores, phone solicitors) as well as ways to avoid these traps (e.g., financial goal-setting, bank accounts, the do-not-call registry).

Session 5: Students go grocery shopping with their family and demonstrate how to do comparison shopping, use coupons, and buy produce by the pound.

Session 6: Students discuss how to set financial goals. For what would families like to save money? How might they do this? In this session students explain that financial institutions are insured and talk about special services that local banks have for refugees (e.g., accounts with little or no minimum balance or fees).

Session 7: Students go with their family to a bank and set up a savings or checking account. Once this is done, students explain how to deposit and withdraw money, and they demonstrate how to balance the account. Students stress that having checks is not the same as having money in the account, and they emphasize the need to continue to save and budget.


The first group of students completed the project in the 2008-2009 academic year, and the second did so this semester. In both cases, students became quite attached to their families and went well beyond the financial education curriculum. For example, one group discovered on their first visit that their assigned family spoke no English. Instead of giving up and asking for another family, they created picture cards and taught the family English as well as financial literacy. When winter approached, another group took its family members shopping for coats and boots, teaching them how to look for the best prices at consignment and outlet stores. One refugee woman was a skilled knitter but had no needles or yarn to knit winter hats and gloves, so her group supplied her with donated needles and yarn. Several students attended a community Thanksgiving dinner with their families.

Other outcomes were not so happy. One group was placed with an Iraqi family that wanted to move to a larger apartment. The students helped them to search for rentals that they could afford and steered them toward better neighborhoods. Unfortunately, landlord after landlord refused to rent to Iraqis. My students were appalled that a family forced to flee Iraq because they helped Americans would be turned away in this manner.

Assessment of the Experience

Student responses to the project have been uniformly positive, and many students report that they were not previously aware of the number of refugees in our community or of their needs. In one course evaluation, a student described the experience as the "most meaningful thing I have ever done." Another student went on to complete an independent study examining refugee parents' views of education, the results of which have been used by the resettlement agency to assist families in the transition to school. A third student became a coach for a refugee youth soccer team. The resettlement agency was equally enthusiastic and nominated the class for the Outstanding Volunteer Service-Learning Course of the Year Award at the college, which the course subsequently received.

Implementation Advice

First and foremost, students need to know up front what the requirements of the class will be. Despite the fact that the class is promoted as a service-learning course, some students are not aware of that fact. To address this issue, I email the class prior to the first session to make sure that all students know what is expected, and then I discuss it at length the first day of class.

I chose to focus on financial literacy because the resettlement agency identified that topic as most critical. For the objectives of the course, any topic that the resettlement agency saw as a need could be used. Clearly, it is imperative to work closely with a resettlement agency during the design phase of the project.

Many of the refugee families live in less than ideal neighborhoods. Although I was not concerned about the safety of my students with the families themselves (who are all screened by the resettlement agency), the neighborhoods in which they live are potentially risky. To reduce this risk, students are assigned to families in teams of three so that if any one student is ill on the day of a visit, students are not alone. Further, I encourage students to meet with families during daylight hours.

I regard my students as compassionate and responsible people. Few students have had experience with refugees, however, so to avoid any potential miscommunication or unintended insults, all students complete an initial orientation session with the resettlement agency. We also watch a video about refugees and talk in class about issues that might arise (e.g., what to do if the family offers you food). Finally, students structure the sessions so that they teach for half the time and the refugees teach about their culture for the other half. This way, the refugees know that their contribution to the project is valued as well.